One of my favorite Yiddish words is sitzfleisch. Its literal meaning is “sitting-flesh” (a.k.a. your gluteus maximus) and it refers to the ability to sit down and focus. Stick-to-it-ness. Tenacity.
I wanted to be a writer ever since I was a kid, but it felt like an impossible dream. I liked the beginning part of writing (coming up with ideas) and was sure I’d like the end (receiving accolades for my best-seller), but the middle felt a little murky. You know, the part where you have to just…sit and write. Using sitzfleisch.
In my mind, Writers (yes, with a capital W) were the kind of people who could magically sit down with their notebooks or laptops and write and write and write for hours upon hours upon hours until poof! they’d surface with a complete draft of their masterpiece.
Now, I’m fairly good at sitting. As long as my travel mug of hot tea is by my side, I can sit like the best of ‘em. (At least until I’ve drunk all the tea and have to get up and pee.)
But the thing I don’t have is the ability to work on one project, and one project only, for long stretches of time—especially not when I’m working on a first draft. I find drafting a new piece so mentally taxing that I can only do it in small bursts (each one followed by an extended period of patting myself on the back). I’ve found this to be especially true lately while I’ve been working on a YA novel-in-verse. This morning I thought my brain might explode after writing a grand total of (wait for it) 57 words.
Meanwhile you hear of all these writers setting lofty goals of 1000 (or more!) words a day, or powering through whole novel drafts in a month. Let’s see, if I’m aiming for a final manuscript of at least 30,000 words, then at 57 words per day, I’m looking at…
Luckily, I’ve developed a workaround. A sitzfleisch strategy, so to speak.
These days, rather than trying to live up to my idealized image of a Writer who works on one masterpiece for hours on end, I’m routinely working on 3, 4 or more pieces at a time. Sitzfleisch, to me, has come to mean the ability to sit and work on something, but that “something” might actually be several different things over the course of a day.
For example: right now I’m working on a first draft of the aforementioned novel-in-verse, but I’m also polishing the script for a comic book, revising the book of a musical and developing ideas for a handful of children’s book manuscripts—plus working on pieces for this blog. Each of these projects is at a different stage, which is crucial to my strategy. Developing ideas, drafting, revising and editing all use distinct parts of my brain, so even if I hit a wall with one project, I still have the mental energy to move on to another. Moving from piece to piece started as a coping mechanism for when I got stuck, but it’s now a deliberate strategy I use to make progress as a writer.
What I’ve come to realize about sitzfleisch is that it’s about sitting down to do the work, but that each writer gets to define for themselves just what that “work” is. My process of bouncing from project to project might not look like another writer’s six hour stint, but that’s okay. To borrow the words of Jess Lahey, KJ DellAntonia and Sarina Bowen from the #amwriting podcast, we’re all just figuring out our own ways to “keep our butts in the chair and our heads in the game.”
So, I’ll stop comparing my sitzfleisch to that of other writers. And now that I’ve taken a break to edit this post, I think I’m refreshed enough to tackle another 57 words.